Why Monks Sit in the Snow

Why Monks Sit in the Snow

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Why Monks Sit in the Snow

My six-year-old son and his friend have just left the dining room, where I am writing. The boys were wearing black sweat pants and black turtlenecks that they had pulled from Ryan’s dresser. They cinched the pants at the waist with belts, through which they had slipped wooden swords. Then they crept up on me. When I looked up from my computer, they ran squealing from the room.

This stunt was repeated about ten times in eight minutes. The repetition did nothing to diminish the hilarity for the two boys (or increase it for me). The pirate-spy routine had been preceded by attempts to pogo in the family room, in-line skate in the kitchen, dribble a basketball down the stairs, burp the letters in their names (my son has shown genius in this area) and play catch in the stairwell.

I took away the pogo stick, put the skates outside, stored the basketball in a closet, told the boys I’d heard enough burping for one day and guided the game of catch to the driveway. Still ahead: the friend’s anguished departure, subtraction homework, spelling flashcards, dinner, dishes, books and a pokey meander into bed. During this time I had to finish my column.

Two nights earlier I had dinner with a friend who was in town on business from Los Angeles. I drove into the city early so we could catch up, and we ended up walking through the shops around Union Square. She has a three-year-old boy and a baby due in three months. At the Banana Republic, she ran her hands over a soft throw blanket.

“Oh, isn’t this wonderful?” she asked. Then she found a comforter. “Look at this,” she said. At Saks, she found a flannel nightshirt. “Feel this,” she said.

I looked at her. “Do you realize everything you’ve looked at has to do with sleep?” Once upon a time her shopping tastes ran to spike heels and miniskirts.

She laughed. “When I get up in the morning,” she said, “all I think about is how many hours until I can get back in.”

The next night I sat in a darkened room at a Zen retreat not far from my house. The room was packed with people who had come to meditate then listen to a lecture on spirituality. The teacher mentioned how he had traveled to Asia as a young man to learn the ways of the monks. He sat in a snowy forest for days with little food, drink or sleep. He sat like a yogi on the bank of the Ganges River for twenty hours at a stretch though his legs burned with pain and his eyes longed for rest. He explained that the effort of his mind to overcome the deprivation and distractions took him to higher states of clarity and vision and taught him patience.

I was thinking about this, and about my L. A. friend, as my son and his pal staged a sword fight in the hallway. The connections of the last few days began to fall into place. I thought about the repeated reminders and admonishments we parents deliver through the day, the noise, the lack of sleep, the long waits for our child to get dressed, clean his room or get out of the car. (“C’mon, we’re going into the store now. Put down the soccer ball. No, we can’t take the dog. What are you doing? That cookie’s probably been under the seat for a month. C’mon. Now. I mean it. Don’t worry about the cookie. We’ll throw it out in the store. Let’s go.” The only things children do quickly are go to the bathroom, eat dessert, open gifts and climb fences separating playgrounds from deadly freeways.)

Suddenly it clicked. I understood why monks must sit in snow and on the banks of the Ganges. They don’t have children!

It occurred to me that, in my search for self-improvement and spirituality, I had everything I needed in my own home. Every parent does. There are the long painful nights we sit without moving because one twitch might wake the (potentially) very loud baby in our arms. There is the excruciating mind and muscle control to stifle a smile when our child earnestly tells us he didn’t pick up his toys because he got hit with a ball at school and suffered brain damage.

There are the tests of concentration when you’re talking to a client on the phone and your child appears in the doorway in nothing but boots and a gun belt and acts out the final scene from High Noon.

There are the years on end of getting to sleep after midnight because only when the kids are asleep and the phone isn’t ringing can you get your chores finished, then you’re up at six to make lunches and get breakfast and shuttle them to school before you go, bleary-eyed, to work.

Religious students travel the globe to find tests of will, patience, deprivation and selflessness. Parents live them every day. Anyone looking for a mysterious, contradictory and fulfilling religion couldn’t do much better than child-rearing. All the components are there: rituals, generosity, penance, guilt and desperate prayer, all punctuated by moments of transcendent clarity and unmatched joy.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but I’m wondering if we can get tax-exempt status.

Joan Ryan

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